September 17, 2010


        Wikipedia defines steampunk thus: “Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction, frequently featuring elements of fantasy... The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era Britain — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date…”  Recently I’ve encountered a few juvenile fantasy books that are clearly somewhere in the steampunk continuum, and I see a bit of a recent trend toward two strains of steampunk influence in juvenile fantasy.  One theme is the pseudo-Victorian style (and alternate reality setting) and the other is the addition of technological fun and games to the magic.  The books I’m thinking of aren’t really sci-fi, and the “-punk” suffix isn’t really appropriate to books without the dystopian vibe.  So in the spirit of the constant crop of new subgenre coinings, perhaps I should call these books “steamfantasy” or “technofantasy” or something.
        Whatever you call them, here are a few I’ve enjoyed.

Alternate reality settings with magic (but no emphasis on technology)
        1. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy (set in un unspecified not-long-ago era with an alternate history).  The character of the demon Bartimaeus is what I like best about these books.  While he is, well, a demon, his intelligence and sense of humor make him far more likable than the human characters, even the ones who are protagonists.  The setting is nifty, the plots ingenious, and the conception of magic is original and interesting.
        2. Wrede and Stevermer’s trilogy beginning with Sorcery and Cecelia (set in 1817).  These books are a delightful romp through Regency society from the point of view of a pair of spirited cousins who discover that magic and magicians are all around them plotting devious plots that must be foiled, all without interfering too much with The Season.  (It looks like Stevermer’s new book Magic Below Stairs involves the same cast of characters, and it’s definitely on my reading list.)

James Bond meets Magic (technology & magic go together in the present)
        1.  Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series.  I admit that I haven’t read the last couple of these books, and the series keeps getting longer… but what an original vision of fairyland!  The blend of high-tech high-jinks with leprechaun (or should I say LEP Recon) gold is good fun.
        2.  E. Nesbit’s Fairy Stories.  Well, for us now it’s a historical setting and I can’t exactly cite her as part of a recent trend, but her stories were set in what was the present when she wrote them.  Nesbit was fascinated with exciting new technology such as diving bells and elevators, in a time when most fantasy writers were strictly pre-industrial romanticists.  She offers a charming blend of speculative builders and magic golden apples, beautiful princesses who solve their problems with math, and dragon-cursed nations who advertise for their rulers at the registry office.

        1.  Howard Whitehouse’s series beginning with The Strictest School in the World (no magic as such, but still clearly fantasy, set in 1894).  Zany, madcap adventures beginning with a girl who wants to invent the airplane and discovers the perfect partner in her experimentation: an Indestructible Boy.  One of my favorite parts of the first book is that involving the hockey-stick-wielding Josie, but bloodthirsty Princess Purnah’s fractured English alone is worth the price of admission.  I keep hoping that the trilogy will turn into a quadrilogy. (Addendum: I really need to add that two and a half years later this remains one of our favorite series and P and T still reread it themselves and ask me to reread it to them.)
        2.  Catherine Webb’s Horatio Lyle series (Victorian).  This probably qualifies as true steampunk, with faerie villains and Faraday’s inventions sharing the stage with the muddy underbelly of Victorian London.  I find it interesting to be cheering for the (mostly ruthless) humans when the (mostly ruthless) faeries’ arguments often seem the more compelling, so I’m curious how this conflict will develop.  I’ve read the first two so far, and I have the third on my reading list.
        [Pictures: Fantasy Clockwork I and Fantasy Clockwork II, rubber block prints by AEGN, 2008.     (Fantasy Clockwork I was commissioned for The Paper and Ink Kaleidoscope by C.P. O'Brien, a not-yet-published technofantasy adventure set in Boston.)]

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